In Indonesia, the UN again comes too late

Peacekeepers were finally invited to East Timor Sunday. But has the UNbeen naive?

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

President B.J. Habibie yesterday invited United Nations peacekeeping troops to deploy in East Timor, but failed to give any indication whether they could move in quickly enough to stop further slaughter.

"I have made the decision to give our approval to a peacekeeping force together with the Indonesian military to maintain the security of East Timor," Mr. Habibie said in a televised speech.

Habibie also said his foreign minster Ali Alatas would go to New York to discuss the terms of the peacekeeping mission with the UN Security Council.

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But he gave no hint about the arrival date, the composition of such troops, nor the form of cooperation with the Indonesian Army - a force that has openly supported the pro-Indonesian militia in its attacks.

It appears that the world's condemnations, threats of economic sanctions, and the United Nations' diplomatic mission this weekend have paid off.

But the UN will undoubtedly receive no applause for the turnaround. The smoke from the charred ruins of East Timor has cast a shadow over the UN's New York headquarters, where diplomats were stunned by Indonesia's failure to live up to its agreement.

This was supposed to be a proud moment for the UN and the East Timorese. The near problem-free, UN-run referendum 14 days ago was an opportunity for the international body to recoup some lost prestige and answer those critical of the UN's ineffectiveness in recent world crises. But revenge-seekers razed the territory's capital, Dili, and, along with it, the UN's standing.

"Nobody in his wildest dreams thought that what we are witnessing could have happened," UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said on Friday.

Mr. Annan and his advisers face sharp criticism for accepting Jakarta's promises to ensure security in East Timor, despite reports alleging the Indonesian Army's complicity in the violence leading up to the referendum. Indonesia received the world's trust even though some 200,000 East Timorese have died in the past two decades.

"If people didn't know it ahead of time, then they were very foolish," says Alfred Rubin, a professor of international law at Tuft University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass. "And if Kofi Annan did not know it, he was misadvised or he trusted the words of Indonesians who were untrustworthy."

The statements coming out of Jakarta yesterday still were vague and even contradictory.

A military spokesman indicated one hour before Habibie's talk that foreign troops would not arrive before Indonesia's highest legislative, the People's Consultative Assembly, endorsed last month's referendum that showed 78.5 percent of the East Timorese in favor of independence. That legislative vote is scheduled for late October at the earliest.

This would leave yesterday's compromise an empty one, as UN troops had been expected to take over from the Indonesian military soon after that vote. "What kind of peacekeeping force will it be?" asked an Asian diplomat. "Indonesia could set countless conditions. It seems that Australia is not welcome in such a force."

Samuel Berger, national security adviser to President Clinton, expressed skepticism after Habibie's announcement. "All these things have to be clarified," Mr. Berger said. And it will need to be tested.

"The test is threefold," he added. "One, will it be effective? Two, can it deploy quickly? Three, will it be able to restore order and help realize the results of the referendum of Aug. 30 for the people of East Timor?"

Back in May, Annan seemed to acknowledge problems with Jakarta's assurances. But he said he had no alternative; the UN could not force itself into a sovereign nation.

Other UN officials frequently point out that the people expect the UN to be a global police force when the charter requires it to respect member states' sovereignty.

During Friday's press conference, Annan was asked if he felt betrayed by the Indonesian government. It was the kind of question the secretary-general has heard all too often. Last year, he was asked if he felt betrayed by Iraq after Baghdad flouted an accord brokered by Annan in February. The same query arose again in November, after Annan helped avert airstrikes only to witness Baghdad's failure to comply with UN weapons inspections.

Annan insists that there was no choice but to accept Jakarta's promises. "If we had not accepted and insisted that they should maintain order, we probably would never have had the vote."

From the beginning, Jakarta called the shots. Habibie surprised the world in January by saying that East Timor could opt for independence or autonomy. Then in May, Portugal, the UN, and Indonesia signed an accord allowing for the referendum. Since Jakarta refused to allow international peacekeepers in East Timor, only a small contingent of unarmed police monitors and advisers was sent.

"We all thought this is an opportunity that we have to grab," says Jonathan Paris, the co-editor of The Politics of Post-Suharto Indonesia. "So everyone focused on that election. And that election was one of the most well-run things the UN has ever done."

"In hindsight, the East Timorese people would have been better off going through an autonomy phase of self-government under Indonesian control la Palestinian Authority," he adds.

Immediately after the Aug. 30 vote, the price of following Jakarta's lead became apparent. The unarmed UN police officers could do little more than watch as militiamen murdered hundreds of East Timorese, including local UN staff members. The UN compound in Dili itself came under attack. And last week, the world body had to close 12 of its 13 regional centers and relocate most of its staff to Darwin, Australia.

But East Timorese Nobel laureate Jose Ramos-Horta says the blame lies with Jakarta, not the UN.

"I do not criticize the UN," he says. "The secretary-general has been courageous and determined. The real culprit is Indonesia."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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